Mercury News Beijing Bureau
BEIJING -- U.S. Internet companies, which often cite information technology as the key to promoting free speech in China, have responded with resounding silence to an urgent call for help from a human rights group concerned about the detention of a Chinese Web site operator.
New York-based Human Rights Watch asked foreign companies involved in developing China's Internet to protest the detention of Huang Qi, who faces a long prison term for posting on his web site information that offended the government.
Before he was arrested June 3, Huang ran a Web site in the southwestern city of Chengdu that posted unauthorized articles about government corruption and human rights violations in China, including the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. He is awaiting trial for ``subverting state power,'' and faces a prison sentence of 10 years or more.
``The Internet is supposed to help bring freedom to China,'' Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said in a recent news release. ``But that's more likely to happen if foreign companies object to the punishment of Internet users trying to advance freedom.''
If any Internet companies have complained about Huang's arrest, however, they have done so discreetly. A check with more than a dozen American Internet-related businesses here failed to find a single one willing to comment publicly on the Chinese government's efforts to restrict the free flow of information on the Internet, though their industry often cites free speech as an inevitable byproduct of information technology.
Typical of their responses was the comment of Jordan Pi, local manager for Adobe Systems, a huge Internet software company based in Silicon Valley. In the directory of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service, Adobe describes itself as a business that ``develops and supports products to help people express and use information in more imaginative and meaningful ways in print and electronic media.''
``We're not involved in any political cases, so I wouldn't have any comment on this,'' Pi said when asked about the appeal on Huang's behalf.
Pi's reluctance is not surprising, given the Chinese government's ability to reward its friends and punish its enemies. But his response highlights a paradox that pervades the Gold Rush-like race to build China's Internet infrastructure.
While eager to develop advanced information technology to promote economic growth, China's leaders also are eager to retain tight control over many kinds of information. And the global pioneers of an industry that promotes itself as intrinsically liberating do not feel free to comment publicly when use of their technology leads not to freedom but to prison.
``We feel bad for this person because he's basically doing the same thing we're doing -- pushing the envelope,'' said one executive with an American company who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``But everybody in the industry knows it would not help if we go public. It would force the government into a corner and probably not be helpful to Huang Qi.''
Information flood ahead?
Many foreign Internet executives in Beijing said the development of an advanced information pipeline in China eventually will overwhelm the government's efforts to control what flows through it.
Rapid expansion of the Internet in China, which now has more than 10 million users, unquestionably has created a new conduit for communication. But critical comments so far can be found mostly in the peripheral zones of e-mail and chat rooms. Police monitor these areas to weed out comments that contradict government policy on such sensitive topics as Taiwan, Tibet and the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual sect. All foreign-generated news and commentary is banned, and the newly formed Internet Propaganda Administrative Bureau works hard to assure that only government-generated news and commentaries appear on Web sites.
Huang, who forecast his own arrest in an interview with the Mercury News in April, is not the first person in China to face punishment for challenging Internet censors. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported in its latest publication that six of 19 journalists jailed last year in China were imprisoned for offenses related to the Internet.
The report noted that freelance writer Qi Yanchen was arrested last September after posting excerpts from his unpublished manuscript, ``The Collapse of China,'' on the Internet. Two months later, it said, a student named Zhang Ji was charged with ``disseminating reactionary documents via the Internet'' because he had e-mailed reports about the crackdown on Falun Gong to readers abroad.
``The suggestion that new media alone can `help democratize repressive regimes' is surely exaggerated,'' said the report. ``Most repressive regimes, by nature hostile to new ideas, were caught off-guard by the rapid media changes of the 1990s. They have since been catching up.''
If the committee's analysis is correct, it raises a disturbing question: Will U.S. Internet companies expand free speech in China, or will they create a huge new pipeline for government propaganda?
The answer may be both. The Internet may challenge the government's ability to effectively police the growing millions of online conversations and bulletin-board postings, but it also gives the government access to a youthful audience that tends to ignore the traditional government-controlled media.
``Everybody in the industry realizes that the Chinese government wishes to use the medium to extend the coverage of Chinese propaganda,'' said a Beijing-based Western industry analyst, who spoke on condition he not be identified. ``I think the focus of the Chinese government is to distort the terms of the debate.''
Capitalized on mistake
Certainly that was the case in May 1999, after the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, by U.S.-led NATO forces. Although the United States immediately apologized, calling the bombing a tragic mistake, China-based Web sites -- including several major American-owned Internet portals -- were flooded with government-generated, anti-American vitriol. Like the traditional Chinese news media, they initially failed even to report the Americans' denial that the bombing was intentional.
Bill Waddell, president and chief executive officer of Zhaodaola, squirmed in an interview last fall when he recalled how his U.S.-owned but Beijing-based Internet portal, which hosts the Web site for the U.S. Embassy in China, also became a ``conduit for (Chinese) government propaganda.''
``But if you want to operate here -- that's the game,'' he added.
The game has different rules for Chinese, however. American investors here, even if they tried to challenge censorship, probably would not lose anything more than market share and their visas.
Huang said in the April interview that he had no intention of provoking the government when he opened China's first human-rights Web site last year. He said he merely wanted to help locate missing persons, including some of the tens of thousands of women who each year are abducted in rural China and sold into marriage.
But Huang, 37, soon discovered that his $300 secondhand computer was a powerful tool for disseminating information about a broad range of abuses.
The first Web postings that got him in trouble with authorities were his reports on how Chinese peasants had been forced to have appendectomies before being sent to work on Taiwanese fishing boats. The unneeded surgeries, he said, were part of a scheme by China's government-run employment agencies to pocket money the fishing companies paid for health insurance.
`To jail or to hell'
Huang said he knew there would be more trouble down the road.
``I know my future if I continue with my Web sites,'' he said in April. ``It's either to jail or to hell.''
Before the 11th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, massacre of democracy activists in Tiananmen Square, Huang's Web site featured articles calling for Li Peng, who is No. 2 in the Chinese Communist Party's hierarchy and head of parliament, to be put on trial for his alleged role in the crackdown.
At 5:15 p.m. June 3, with the police at his door, Huang posted his last message. ``Thanks to all who make an effort on behalf of democracy in China,'' he wrote. ``They have come. Goodbye.''
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